Louisiana students facing big TOPS cuts in spring

Louisiana Sate Capitol daytime

BATON ROUGE, La. (The Daily Advertiser) – Louisiana college students on TOPS will face a bigger price tag this spring when they feel the brunt of severe cuts to the scholarship program.

The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students will be funded at 41.8 percent this spring. Students will be left to make up the difference.

That looks a little different at each school. Maximum TOPS payments this spring range from about $434 to $671 at two-year schools in the Louisiana Technical & Community College System. They hover above $1,000 for most schools in the Louisiana State University System, going as high as $1,559 for the flagship campus.

Payments in the University of Louisiana System also stick close to the $1,000 mark, reaching as high as $1,272 for the University of New Orleans. It costs more than $3,000 for tuition alone for a UNO student taking 12 credit hours, or a full load of classes, in the spring semester.

Higher ed leaders expect some institutions to lose students because they can’t afford to fill that gap.

“We don’t know the full impact, but we know it’s not going to be positive,” UL System interim President Dan Reneau said.

His system saw 34 percent of its undergraduates  — 27,000 students — on TOPS last year. He doesn’t know what that number will be after cuts this year.

“We haven’t been through this before,” Reneau. “(But) it will affect the number of students attending higher education institutions, no doubt … and perhaps the poorer students will be hurt the most.”

Louisiana Tech University President Les Guice is hoping that won’t be the case.

“We’re probably going to face it first because we’re on the quarter system,” he said. “We’ll see impacts in the winter. … It’s a fairly sudden transition. We haven’t had much time to plan.”

The Louisiana Legislature voted in June to fund the merit-based scholarship program at 70 percent for the 2016-17 school year. That cut was distributed disproportionately, funding TOPS at nearly 100 percent in the fall with most of the cut to come this spring.

“Front-loading” this cut was intended to give students, schools and state government time to find other funding, but time is running out and the legislature is expected to recognize a deficit next month.

The legislation will impact students beyond this year. Act 28 from the 2016 session established the award at the 2016-2017 level and permanently reduced TOPS to whatever level is paid out this year, unless the legislature increases the award amount by law in future sessions.

Louisiana State University System President F. King Alexander told the Board of Regents in September that a cut this high likely would deter some students from returning for the spring semester, especially if they were hit by flooding in August.

“I don’t know what the outcome is going to be — whether students take time off or stop,” Alexander said. “We think (funding TOPS at) 80 percent would not deter most students from coming back. We think (funding at) 40 percent would.”

Of the about 16,000 students in the LSU System on TOPS, Alexander said “there’s a likelihood about 1,000 don’t come back.”

That kind of drop could mean a loss of millions of dollars in revenue to universities along with skewing retention figures.

“Put an asterisk next to retention that means flood and TOPS,” Alexander said in September. “… (And) fixed costs continue whether the kids come back or not.”

Like other universities, Guice said, officials at Tech “are working to do everything we can to make sure they can come back.”

Financial aid offices at schools across the state, including Louisiana Tech, will be sending targeted emails to affected students to notify them of options like federal work study programs or additional financial aid, like loans or hardship assistance.

“We’ve set aside some need-based aid,” Guice said.

Those funds were set aside after severe flooding in August, and some schools also conducted fundraising activities at the time. Such hardship assistance also applies to this situation.

While some students are hesitant to take out loans, University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Vice President for Enrollment Management DeWayne Bowie points out that loans can be a worthy investment.

“I know a lot of students are saying they don’t want to borrow, but I also look at loans as an investment in your future,” Bowie told UL Lafayette’s The Vermilion. “These are loans that don’t have to be paid until after you graduate from school. If that’s going to make the difference in whether or not you can attend college, it is a great investment in yourself.”

Administrators at all schools are encouraging students to visit campus financial aid offices to determine their options. Many schools also offer information online. For example, students at LSU of Alexandria are being encouraged to log into their MyLSUA account and find out more about a flexible payment plan option with payments spread over a period of several months.

Looking to the future

As students make hard choices, Reneau  encourages them to remind their legislators about their own choices in the next legislative session. He wants to see the TOPS scholarship program restored, but said it will take more than just higher education folks doing the pushing.

“We need to restore or add to TOPS,” Reneau said. “… The population — parents and students — need to make their voices heard. They vote. I’m only one vote. And we’ve made our position clear. A rally here is what’s needed.

Despite years of cuts, he’s optimistic about what’s to come for higher education in the state.

“I’ve always believed deeply that the future of Louisiana and any state lies in how educated a population is,” Reneau said. “And a lot of people here are committed to that.”

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